When Good Books Make You Cry

Spoiler Alert! Proceed with caution if you haven’t read Sophie’s Choice or Cold Mountain.

Nobody talks about how some books make you cry. Oh sure, people mention all the time that a movie put them in tears (me, for instance, when watching Terms of Endearment, a movie that hit me so hard I had to lock myself in the bathroom because I couldn’t stop sobbing. Even now, when I watch the scene where Debra Winger says goodbye to her sons, I lose it.) I’ve also heard many people admit to crying at commercials, people like me who have been known to wipe a tear after catching a favorite Hallmark commercial or that Folger’s Coffee commercial, the one where Peter comes home for Christmas.

So why don’t people cry when reading books?  I can’t remember anyone ever telling me that a book had made them cry. Oh, they’ll tell me that the book was sad, that they felt depressed after reading it. But no one has ever said to me that they had to grab a tissue box and hold on for dear life after turning a last page.

Maybe that’s why I was so surprised the first time it happened to me. There I was, making my way through Sophie’s Choice, increasingly worried about Sophie and Nathan and even poor Stingo, half-halfheartedly convincing myself that it would all work out, when suddenly Sophie revealed her choice. I burst into tears. I had to stop reading. I couldn’t imagine how Sophie had gathered the strength to go on. At the time, I was the mother of a young daughter, so perhaps the horror Sophie had endured hit me harder. I don’t know. But I do know that it took me a few days to pick the book up again, and that when I was finished it, I felt depressed for weeks, unable to read, unable to rid myself of the vision of Sophie and her children in the concentration camp.

Over the next decade I read many books, a great number of the sad (why? why? why am I drawn to sad stories?). But not one evoked a single tear from me.

And then I read Cold Mountain. And did so while shivering beneath many blankets, fighting the flu. Though it’s true that I read the book under the influence of over-the-counter medication, I don’t think that had anything to do with how I reacted when — six lousy pages from the end of the book — Inman died. I felt shocked and hurt and, then, I burst into tears. Wiping my eyes and nose, I pulled the blankets around me and hobbled out to tell my children what had happened. They seemed concerned, not for Imnan, but for their mother who was delirious and babbling.

You know that old saying, “You don’t know what you think until you write it”? It’s sometimes true. I’ve been trying to figure out why these two books — and only these (up to this point) — affected me this way. Writing this post has helped me to see that the element of surprise in both books did shock me into tears. But I also know that if either event — what Sophie revealed and Inman’s murder — had happened without the authors really preparing me, the reader, for the possibility, then I wouldn’t have cried, I would’ve been indignant. There was no cheat, no deus ex machina, just hard work on the part of the writers who crafted two extraordinary novels populated with characters I really cared about, characters who felt real.

And finally, it’s easy enough to cry at a movie or a commercial or a TV show, even when you don’t want to, even when the dialogue is trite, because the director is using every trick in the book to force your tears (sick child, injured animal, swelling music, Sean Astin being carried on the backs of the entire Notre Dame football team), but a writer of novels or stories can rely only on carefully chosen words. It’s the more difficult thing to pull off, to make a reader cry. Maybe that’s why it’s so rare.

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